This is the song that was number one on my first birthday. Obviously I don’t remember it, though I do remember the song from Glen Campbell’s version in 1970.
Conway Twitty was a stage name for Harold Lloyd Jenkins, the son of a riverboat captain from Mississippi. I know what you’re thinking – and yes, he was indeed named after the silent actor.
A child prodigy, he joined his first group, The Phillips Country Ramblers, when he was only ten, went on to host a weekly radio show, and was a budding baseball prodigy, but had to turn down a professional contract when he was drafted into the US Army to fight in the Korean War.
Upon his discharge in 1956 he was once again offered a baseball contract but, inspired by hearing Elvis Presley, he opted instead for a music career and went to Sun Studios in Memphis, hoping to emulate Presley’s success with Sam Phillips, who had also guided Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to fame.
He didn’t release any songs of his own but wrote a minor hit for Orbison and went on a rockabilly tour, choosing his stage name from looking at a road map – pairing the towns of Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas.
It would be two more years (and two more record labels) before he found success – and a stroke of luck that brought it, when an Ohio radio DJ flipped over one of his many flop singles and played the B-side instead.
It’s Only Make Believe – a throwaway song he had written with his drummer Jack Nance in between sets at a gig in Canada – was far from an instant success.
Over the course of an entire year, it made its way slowly – very slowly – up pop charts around the world, eventually reaching number one in the USA, and the UK, and 20 other countries. Its popularity was aided by Twitty’s vocal similarity to Elvis that actually had some listeners believing it was a Presley song released under a pseudonym.
In the mid-Sixties Twitty moved away from rock’n’roll, walking offstage in the middle of a concert in New Jersey to pursue his new dream of becoming a country singer. His inspiration this time was Ray Price having a big country hit with one of his songs, Walk Me To The Door.
Despite initial resistance from Christian country radio stations who regarded him with deep suspicion due to his association with the devil’s music, he became a country superstar with his rhinestones and sideburns and a string of syrupy, sensual and slightly suggestive middle-of-the-road ballads.
Twitty reigned supreme in Nashville throughout the Seventies and Eighties, notching up a record 40 country number ones and enjoying a fruitful professional partnership with Loretta Lynn, releasing a string of duets, before moving back into pop in the late Eighties.
He died in 1993 at the age of only 59, leaving several children, a chain of restaurants (Twitty Burger) and his own theme park (Twitty City) at his home near Nashville.